A friend spoke to me recently about some struggles in her marriage—problems involving communication, respect, money, division of labor.

You know, just the run-of-the-mill types of problems we all face. The very same problems that can make us feel like we’ve fallen out of love or that we don’t even know our spouse any more.

As she talked, I could see through her eyes the picture of the healthy, loving marriage that she yearned for. It was the same as what any married couple yearns for. A worthy aspiration, of course. But for two sinners caught in sinful and selfish habits, it can look like a hopeless enterprise.

So I told her, “You know, people often say, ‘You need to work on your marriage.’ But you know what? You can’t fix your marriage. You can’t change your husband’s mind about any particular disagreement, or single-handedly change the way the two of you communicate. So don’t work on your marriage. Just work on yourself.”

To my surprise, she looked at me and said,“You know, we’ve been in counseling for six months and that’s more helpful than anything I’ve heard at any of our sessions.”

In your face, six months of marriage counseling! (They were seeing a professional marriage counselor, not a pastor or anybody at church, so I can say that).

End of article.

Just kidding, that’s not the end of the article. My point is not that one nugget of gold from my lips  is better than six months of counseling. My point is that what I meant to drive home to her I actually ended up driving home to myself.

Which is that it’s actually a relief—not a burden—when you realize you can let go of the changes your spouse needs to make, and work on only yourself.

Two Has to Start With One

Marriage is not some separate entity that can be honed or polished. It isn’t a vehicle that I can park in the garage and tinker under the hood in my spare time until it’s up and running again. It is simply a lifelong partnership between a man and a woman, with vows made before God.

Often when conflict builds and escalates in our marriages it’s because we’re both caught in an endless loop of reciprocity. I don’t feel loved, I’m not going to show love. You’re not honoring or respecting me, I’m not going to honor or respect you. And all we end up doing is driving ourselves farther and farther away from one another.

That’s a self-centered way of thinking about marriage. It takes two, remember. And sometimes two has to start with one. Someone has to break the ice. Someone has to remember that they made vows, that they have obligations, that what God requires of them is not reciprocity but obedience.

So work on you.

Change the way that you speak to your husband. You may already know what you do that bothers him. Or you may not know. But c’mon, be honest. If he has habits that annoy you, you have habits that annoy him. You can figure it out. Pay attention to body language. Think about what sparks conflict. If all else fails, ask him.

Look for ways that you can tangibly love him, and don’t stand around waiting for reciprocation.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Look him in the eye when he’s talking to you, and don’t check your phone.
  • Join him in something he enjoys. Watch his tv show with him, without complaining or criticizing.
  • Tell him he’s good-looking, or pay him a sincere compliment.
  • Make a point of thanking him for something, and telling him why you appreciate it.
  • Give him one more hug than usual, each day.
  • Initiate sex.
  • Do him a favor—vacuum out his car, make his favorite meal, or do a chore that he usually does.
  • Buy him something he likes: a magazine, a candy bar, a box of pop-tarts.

Love is a Choice

You may feel unable to change. But God loves to give his children good gifts, and He has promised to give us His Holy Spirit, who transforms us from the inside out: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” (Luke 11:13)

Sure, it will feel unnatural, insincere and contrived at first. But love is a choice. It’s a verb, not a feeling. You are making a conscious choice to love this person whom you happen to be married to. And like anything worth doing, it takes practice. It’s something you grow into.

Think of it as a duet. How do you improve the duet if only one of the players is engaged in the music? Or maybe only one of the players is even present? You practice your own part, over and over, until you can do it without hesitation or stumbling.

All of the work we do in this lifetime has to be entrusted to God. The work of “working on your marriage” is no different. There are no guaranteed results. We have to live in obedience and trust God with the rest.

Ultimately, your marriage is not in your hands. Isn’t that a relief? It should be. You can’t fix it. But God can. And He starts by transforming you.

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